Over the past decade, technology — in particular, AI — has advanced at an unprecedented rate. Rarely a month goes by that doesn’t see a new innovation surpassing a benchmark previously thought to be insurmountable. For example, a few years ago Google Deepmind’s AlphaGo program beat one of the world’s best Go (a Chinese board game) players in such an impressive way that its tactics were described as “beautiful” by Fan Hui, a European Champion.
Although, these developments have engendered some concerns. Many worry that such rapid development of machines could spell the demise of humanity. Although for others, the chief concern is the prospect of unemployment. According to a report from Carl Frey and Michael Osborne at Oxford University, 47% of jobs will be partly automated over the coming years. Whilst interesting, such research does nothing to calm the nerves of the workforce.
However, there is countering evidence to suggest that the future might not be as negative as many have assumed. So, rather than machines rendering humans obsolete, we should instead be exploring the countless opportunities that will stem from a closer collaboration between man and machine.
The benefits of collaboration
“First and foremost, we must acknowledge the possibility that AI could ultimately improve the way humans work,” states Nikolas Kairinos, CEO and founder of Fountech.ai, a company specialising in the development and delivery of artificial intelligence solutions for businesses and organisations. “Indeed, the Harvard Business Review found that 1,500 firms achieved the most significant performance improvements when workers and technology worked closely together.”
So, what improvements can we expect to see from such a collaboration?
According to Kairinos: “The first will likely be amplification — that is, machines augmenting the roles and tasks that humans already fulfil. AI for farmers, for example, highlights just how such amplification could work. Here, the latter can be provided with real-time recommendations as to where they should plant crops, which crops they should plant, what sort of fertiliser to use, etc. The role of the agriculturists is still as important as ever, yet the collaboration between man and machine means the crop yield could become far greater. The engineers of tomorrow will need to ensure that new machines dovetail with both the needs of workers and the capabilities of AI, as in this example.”
Secondly, Kairinos continues, AI will certainly play a greater role when it comes to repetitive tasks: “Millions of people worldwide have jobs that are repetitive, laborious and at times, dangerous. In the engineering world, there are countless examples, but the operators who manage machinery spring most keenly to mind.
Thankfully, AI could be set to make the world of work more interesting. Tools such as X.ai are on the bleeding edge of this battle. This is an example of a program that automates
procedural, time-consuming office emails, acting essentially as a personal assistant and thereby allowing workers to spend more time on value-adding tasks.”
In these ways, collaboration between man and machine is needed because it makes the work humans do more fruitful and less monotonous.
Will we be replaced?
While collaboration between people and technology appears both likely and highly beneficial, many continue to make gloomy predictions about unemployment and humanity being replaced. These are usually accompanied by questions over where future generations will find their purpose, if not in work.
However, Kairinos adds, those issues are at the bottom of a slippery slope, and the reality is likely to be more positive. He says: “History has shown that great technological advancements don’t necessarily push people out of work. Over the course of the 20th century, for example, we collectively progressed from the telegram to the personal computer, and unemployment in the West hovered roughly around the 5%-10% mark throughout.”
Indeed, huge progress in AI looks likely to drive job creation instead. Kairinos continues: “According to the World Economic Forum, there will be a net creation of 58 million jobs due to technological advancements over the medium term — despite millions of jobs becoming automated. Pedro Domingos, head of machine learning at the D.E. Shaw Group suggests that the proliferation of AI and new technology will create roles that are currently unintelligible — in the same way that the concept of a ‘graphic designer’ or ‘software developer’ would be unimaginable to a Victorian.”
Further, Kairinos says, there are many arguments suggesting that humans have some inherent characteristics that machines will never be able to replace. “William J. Littlefield II, a tech specialist and philosopher, offers the example that people are able to reason ‘abductively’. Whilst machines can do so ‘inductively’ and ‘deductively’, this faculty is creative and allows us to think beyond the confines of pre-established parameters. Some would argue that this ability to think outside the box sets us apart from machines.
“We also cannot do away with the need for human insight, particularly when it comes to sensitive matters. The example of Google Translate offers a good example — researchers at the University of Princeton found that it had picked up sexist discrimination from language learning and had begun translating Turkish in an offensive manner. Without human oversight and input from engineers, developers and designers, these problematic mistakes could go unchecked.”
In sum, we need greater collaboration between man and machine because of the many benefits it will bring. Importantly, many of the concerns people have about the negative results of this collaboration appear unlikely to come to pass. I now look with interest to see how the engineering sector will respond to these trends and how individual firms maximise on the growing opportunities in AI.
Health and safety
Automation doesn’t just mean certain jobs being taken away from workers or even the creation of new jobs, Steve Brambley, CEO at Gambica – which represents the instrumentation, control, automation and laboratory technology industries in the UK – says it’s also about improving societal issues.
“We often forget that automation isn’t just about productivity or quality,” he says. “There’s masses of evidence out there that talks about the fact that technology is a creator of jobs and will make a great change to society.”
He claims that Greta Thunberg, the extinction rebellion movement and the proliferation of electric vehicles have raised the profile and our understanding of the climate crisis.
“Other drivers at the institutional level include the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals,” Brambley adds. “There’s a whole load of drivers about poverty, hunger, welfare, etc, but also things like decent work and economic growth. So, it’s not an entirely green agenda, it’s also about good society and sustainable development goals.”
These goals are being applied to product standards, for example, manufacturers want to demonstrate to their customers and staff that they’re trying to do the right thing.
“How does that translate into where automation and digitalisation go? Well, health, safety and wellbeing are probably some of the more familiar things driving automation. Particularly, regulation and safety have been very big drivers, and preventing accidents has long been one of the reasons
why people automate – whether they’re forced into it because something happened or because they’re being proactive to make sure that accidents don’t happen,” Brambley continues. “And it’s not just accidents and fatalities, it’s injury and strain. Whether that’s moving things around or just augmenting the people that do the job.”
Equally, protection from toxic and hazardous materials, such as paint shops in car manufacturing plants or anywhere that’s dusty or uses chemicals, automation is used to reduce exposure to those elements by continuous monitoring of the environment.
Brambley adds: “Finally, reducing stress and anxiety might not be always directly obvious, but the idea that if we provide information to people to help them do their jobs, it actually takes away some of their worries. For example, ‘have I remembered all the things I have to do?’”
The ‘Connected Worker’
Industrial software and services company, PTC’s president and CEO, Jim Heppelmann, also believes the use of AI and Augmented Reality (AR) can protect the knowledge and expertise of retiring workers by training next-gen and existing employees. He says the rise of the ‘connected worker’ could help end the UK’s skills drain being accelerated by an ageing workforce.
The chief executive of the company, that has its UK offices in Farnborough, pointed to an increased uptake in the number of companies investing in AR as a way of protecting traditional skills and securing IP.
In its simplest sense, PTC’s Vuforia Expert Capture lets experienced designers and engineers record a task as they carry it out using a wearable device, such as Microsoft’s HoloLens. The content is then turned into a step-by-step video guide with instructions for other workers to follow through the wearable tech – locking valuable skills in place forever.
“The terms Artificial Intelligence and Augmented Reality automatically conjure up images of robots taking human jobs – well, the ‘connected worker’ paints a completely different picture,” explains Heppelmann.
One of the biggest threats to UK industry is an ageing workforce, with recent data from a European Labour Force Survey revealing that 16% of the total EU workforce is aged 55 and over. There is a real danger that these experts will retire before the next generation has had the chance to learn from them.
Heppelmann continues: “This no longer needs to be the case. Adoption is growing thanks to the ability to combine AR and AI to offer cost-effective solutions to manufacturers, not to mention a change in mindset from industry, who have now realised the importance of investing in business-ready software and hardware.
“We have countless examples of small, medium and large firms that are embracing ‘connected worker’ technology to protect knowledge when workers retire, to reduce the costs of onboarding new employees and even the ability to quickly reskill and cross train existing staff.
“I can only see this trend continuing, especially as we see technology and platforms mature to meet the requirements of the modern-day manufacturer. These technologies can bring the superpower of computing into the arms and legs of the workforce.
“According to the recent PwC ‘Seeing is Believing’ Report, wider adoption of VR and AR is going to add £1.5trillion to the world economy over the next ten years. It’s not something businesses can ignore any longer.”
AR is still a relatively new technology, with its use in industry only dating back five years or so. Previously, it has mainly been used to enrich static views by information being overlaid on to reality, but now new functionalities are being developed and rolled-out over the next twelve months.
This will overlay information dynamically and, using low-cost or high-quality glasses, enabling nearly every industrial application imaginable to benefit from Augmented Reality.
Heppelmann concluded: “Augmented Reality is one of the most effective user interfaces ever developed, but it isn’t that useful if it never makes it out of R&D as a true off-the-shelf business tool.
“PTC is heavily investing and working hard to ensure that organisations can leverage the additional technologies related to the Internet of Things (IoT), Product Lifecycle Management (PLM) and Generative Design, ultimately leveraging the full spectrum of what Industry 4.0 has to offer whilst also ensuring people are at the centre of Digital Transformation.”